Thursday, April 4, 2013

On Making Sausage

Status Update: coffee supplies moderate, progress going well.

My idea this week was to write a story about bad-ass cowboys with magical handguns. The hero, who begins the story dead and leaking an alarming amount of blood onto the saloon floor, is just too pissed off to die.

So, I'm writing a story about ridiculous digital rights management in an only-slightly-plausible future.

Yeah, random, I know. That's how my brain rolls, apparently. I'm probably going to write the cowboy story at some point in the future simply because a) I like cowboy stories and b) I occasionally like to macho out and write gritty two-fisted macho tales of macho action in a macho world where macho men do macho things.

Coming up with stories is a hell of a lot like making sausage. Nobody wants to pull back the curtains and let you in the back of the store because idea-making is pretty gross and messy.

I mean, you might think from reading a story that I intended it to come out that way all along. That clever point at the end, where it all comes together and you're like "oh, of course"--you might expect that I had that in mind from the first word. If you watched the story actually being written, it rarely starts out like that.

To continue the sausage metaphor--because, hell, why not?--I'm cramming all sorts of raw, gristly, unpleasant and unlikely ingredients into the grinder. Sometimes at the last minute and with great haste. Oops, my hand slipped and now one of my fingers is in the mix. Where'd the cat go? Did I really just drop my wrist-watch into the machine? Whelp, I'm on a deadline, can't be bothered! Cook it long enough and nobody will know.

Story-writing is like that. The idea-generating process sometimes starts with the most bare of seeds. I write down something like:

Ship portals operate both ways

Then I stare at it a bit, then I start fleshing ideas around it. Do ship portals have to be at sea? What about inside a volcano? Volcanoes are cool! Then I start justifying reasons why I'd have a ship in a magma chamber 2 miles underground. I take a side tour wondering just how many puns I can make about magma, lava, rock and round windows. Then I start wondering if it has to be a ship? What about a house? Why the hell would a house be there? Both ways, wait a minute! Lava coming in, that sounds like an ending! And so it goes.

You let your mind go blank and you chase the rabbit. I'd say about 50% of what I write down when I brainstorm doesn't get used. Sometimes because it's awful, sometimes because it just doesn't fit what the story becomes when it grows up. Roxie Rides The Train, for example, had an entire branch of brainstorming ideas that didn't make the cut--I'd originally cooked up a great deal of stuff about green technology. The only part of that that made it into the story was biodiesel farms.

And that's okay. If those ideas are pretty cool, they can be branched off into a future story.

Other times, you're sitting in front of your desk, banging out ideas and nothing looks right. You stare at the sheet and you have some great stuff, like a kid with Ferrari gloves that lets him look like a ten-ton bad-ass or a pair of sunglasses that let you see into Hell, but it's just not clicking. No matter how much you flesh out the outline or your List Of Cool Ideas, nothing's coming together.

In cases like that, you have two options (well, a lot more, but I'm making sausage here, so bear with me): you can brute force it and just keep beating away at it until it all makes sense or at least it's close enough for horse shoes and nuclear warfare or you can just sleep on it.

I'm a big fan of the second approach.  Sometimes you just have to sit on it and let it stew while you do something else. Wait for that Eureka moment, which will usually happen while you're in the shower or at least a twenty minute drive away from a convenient note-taking implement. When you get that Eureka moment, you ride it as far as it will take you. Or you read a book, or take a nap or go to bed. When you can come at a problem sideways, you'll find all sorts of windows opening up.

Sometimes ideas come from very lame, usually banal sources. You don't often have the deepest ideas right off. Sometimes it might take some fairly persistent thrashing to get an idea up to par. Sometimes the idea never really comes together until you have that first rough draft and then can come back later, fresh, and figure out what the story is really about.

So, yeah. Ideas are like making sausage. Don't sweat where they come from, because the worst ingredients can still make good sausage.

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